Visiting presidential libraries and museums is high on my bucket list and my wife and I checked off three this past week – all honoring Midwestern Republicans.
One lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College (Rutherford B. Hayes), one was assassinated (William McKinley) and one was the first unelected president (Gerald R. Ford).
We were particularly stuck by the contrast between Ford and US President Donald Trump.
Ford followed a corrupt, paranoid, vengeful and racist president – qualities that many attribute to the current occupant of the White House. Trump may share many of Nixon’s faults but not his strengths, such as experience, intellect, a sense of history and an understanding of public policy.
Ford had broad bipartisan support for his nomination as the first appointed vice president and many friends on both sides of the aisle. Trump has virtually none. He has been feuding increasingly with the top leaders of his own party.
The differences between the two are vast, but there is one word that sums it up: menschlichkeit.
It means integrity, honor, decency.
Ford understood the need for healing the nation after “our long national nightmare,” as he termed the Watergate crisis. Trump is creating a new national nightmare. That’s not liberals like me talking; that’s the testimony of leaders of his own party, in the Congress and even in his cabinet.
His own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has reportedly called the president “a f***ing moron.” He didn’t deny it when asked by reporters.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said the White House has become “an adult day care center,” warning that Trump’s reckless tweets and threats could put the nation “on the path to World War III.”
“I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true,” Corker told the New York Times. “You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”
Trump has launched vituperative Twitter attacks on fellow Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan, Senators John McCain, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski and Lindsey Graham, among others. And he wonders why in nine months he hasn’t been able to sign a single piece of major legislation.
Corker, who recently announced his retirement, said “the vast majority” of GOP senators share his concern about Trump’s “volatility.”
The president responded with a barrage of vicious personal attacks on senator from Tennessee who, despite his comments nonetheless supports much of Trump’s agenda and whose vote Trump will need in coming legislative battles.
Foreign leaders feel American diplomats have no credibility because all that really matters is what Trump tweets. He has no qualms about humiliating and attacking people who work for him, including his secretary of state and attorney general.
Tillerson denied reports that he threatened to resign, but he’s been rendered irrelevant by Trump, who in the midst of the top diplomat’s visit to Beijing to discuss the North Korea crisis, tweeted that the secretary was wasting his time.
Tillerson is widely considered a short timer, and Trump is already floating the name of a possible successor, CIA director Mike Pompeo.
Of the deep fissures Trump is creating in American society none is more dangerous than his persistent race baiting.
That was on display Sunday in Indianapolis when his sycophantic vice president, Mike Pence, staged a transparent PR stunt at a 49ers-Colts football game. Pence made a big show of leaving the stadium to protest some players who kneeled during the national anthem. He’d flown to Indiana just for that quick trick, at a cost of taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’d never intended to see the game; his press pool had been told to wait outside because he’d be inside very briefly.
Trump later tweeted that he’d planned the whole show; he knew players would take a knee, that’s the reason he sent Pence. The former Indiana governor and former fiscal conservative was anxious to show loyalty to the boss, at any cost to taxpayers, and to damn all those (mostly black) “SOB” players who kneeled for the national anthem.
If either Trump or Pence were as smart as they boast, they would know that players kneeling during the anthem is not about the song, the flag or the soldiers. It is constitutionally protected exercise of their First Amendment (the one Trump would repeal) right to protest, in this case, police violence. Or worse; maybe they know and just don’t care.
Trump is one of the principle hate mongers, as he showed in his response to hurricane damage in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico (which he seemed not to know is actually an island but is well aware it is not run by white Red State Republicans but brown-skinned Latinos).
Trump never misses an opportunity to stir up racial tensions. It was on display in Charlottesville, Puerto Rico and the football stadiums.
It was seen in his endorsement of a vile bigot like Judge Roy Moore in Alabama or those “very fine people” who marched with KKK hoods and Nazi flags.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports Trump expressed anti-Jewish and other racist sentiments when he starred on The Apprentice, according to one of the producers.
Trump is also waging war against the LGBT community that as a candidate he vowed to protect and defend. Many of his appointees, including many judges and his attorney general, are widely considered to be racists and xenophobes.
Unlike Jerry Ford, this president is working hard to deepen the divisions in our society and exploit them for his own political and financial gain. That, more than anything else, should terrify a Jewish community that will inevitably become a major target as the animosities this president seems determined to stir up spread like a deadly virus.
Jerry Ford had the respect of his opponents.
Jimmy Carter, the man who defeated him in 1976, said, “Nobody ever doubted that when he spoke it was the truth.”
I don’t expect anyone will ever say that about Donald Trump.